Organic cotton conversion: Too little too slowly

By Elise Lee

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Cotton is the world’s dirtiest crop. It covers only 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 24% of the world’s insecticide, more than any other single crop. Even before the raw materials of the garment industry ever hit the factories, its carbon footprint and greenhouse emissions are larger than many industrial sectors. The industry’s water usage and management record are also horrendous, and the chemicals that erode the soils go on to pollute our rivers and lakes. We’ve been hearing the garment and textile industry’s rhetoric of going “green” and going “organic,” but traded organic cotton fiber still represented only less than 1% of the 24.8 million tons of cotton fiber traded worldwide in 2006.

Why, with so much talk and surge in public demand has there been so little development?

What’s taking so long?

What are the real barriers?

How can they be removed?

These are the questions we ask at the GLOBAL INSTITUTE FOR TOMORROW.

Introduction and Executive Summary

According to the International Trade Center paper on Organic Cotton, organic agriculture aims for an optimum and sustainable use of local natural resources for production without the application of external inputs like synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, defoliants and chemically treated or genetically modified seed. Organic agriculture also stipulates better working conditions and fairer prices paid to the farmers and workers along the value chain.

On a global level, the organic cotton market has undergone tremendous growth since the new millennium, but this ripple has not produced waves of transformation for the industry. Consumers are learning of environmental and social ills in the conventional cotton market, but 99% of them are still buying conventional cotton products. Of course, organic cotton conversion takes time, effort and money. The research and transfer of knowledge and know-how of the environmental and technical aspects of organic farming is in progress in disparate efforts throughout the globe. Organizing the efforts, obtaining commitment, monitoring the compliance and subjecting to assessment by multiple external bodies to the stringent yet not uniform organic process is difficult. All that, as well as the investment for infrastructural changes and paying “fairer” or higher wages is expensive. And somehow, it is the farmers that are expected to foot the bill for conversion process.

The GLOBAL INSTITUTE FOR TOMORROW conducted its eleventh Global Young Leaders Programme in partnership with the Pohan Farmers Association (PFA) by bringing together global young leaders in Shanxi, China in July 2009 to spotlight the organic cotton industry development in rural China. The Farmers Association helps local farmers develop a plan to support their efforts for organic conversion of their cotton, while promoting improvement to the livelihood, health and wellbeing of the farmers and the rural community with social, educational and medical facilities. Their organization provides a unique model for small farmers to commit to organic farming, which would facilitate the time and effort components. Despite their successful organization, their efforts are stifled by the conventional barrier of costs. 

Elise Lee is Partnerships Manager at the Global Institute For Tomorrow.